Tiger Woods' comeback far from complete entering final round at Bay Hill

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Tiger Woods' comeback far from complete entering final round at Bay Hill

PGA Tour

Tiger Woods' comeback far from complete entering final round at Bay Hill

ORLANDO – Tiger Woods is in position for a third consecutive top-12 finish and it doesn’t even seem like he’s playing that well.

Woods shot 3-under 69 Saturday in Round 3 of the Arnold Palmer Invitational and sits T-10, 7 under for the week and five shots back of leader Henrik Stenson entering Sunday’s final round. He had six birdies, three bogeys and even got into the holiday spirit with a mint green collared polo shirt.

Golf writers generally don’t find a pot of gold at the end of his post-round media scrums, but there was one question that provided a telling answer from the 42-year-old, 14-time major winner.

Fans at Bay Hill and those who followed him at last week’s Valspar Championship, where he finished T-2, love to scream out, “Tiger is back!” after birdie putts or mashed drives.

On a St. Patrick’s Day Saturday, five tournaments into his season, Woods was asked if he feels like he’s still in the middle of a comeback or if he’s already moved past that point.

“No, I still feel like I’m coming back,” Woods said. “I’m still getting used to what my body can do, shots I’m hitting and playing, competing again. It feels good to be back out there.”

That should be music to fans’ ears because this mid-comeback version of Woods has proved capable of pulling off shots few others on Tour can.

Like at the par-5 16th Saturday, where Woods drove it 306 yards into a right fairway bunker. He had 205 yards to the hole and initially took a sand wedge into the bunker to lay up. He didn’t think he could clear the lip on the left side of the bunker to get to the green. Then the wheels started turning a bit, he saw that he had more room on the right side to get out of the bunker, and Woods walked back to his bag and returned the wedge.

He pulled 5-iron, drawing a collective “Oooooh,” from nearby fans.

“No discussion,” caddie Joe LaCava said. “He said, ‘What’s the front number?’ Once he wanted the front number, I knew he was gonna go for it.”

Woods went for it. He hit his 5-iron 210 yards, 15 feet past the cup, to set up a great eagle look.

“I had to flush it in order to get it there,” Woods said. “Luckily I had a little bit of room to the right and decided to try and pull it off, and I pulled it off.”

Woods missed the eagle putt but made birdie to get to 3 under on the round. He wasn’t very sharp Friday during an even-par 72, but played much better tee to green on Saturday. Woods hit nine of 14 fairways and 13 of 18 greens in regulation.

In all, four shots made the difference between a good score and a great score.

He was in decent shape in a bunker at the par-3 second, but his sand shot landed 10 feet short of the flag and led to bogey.

His 3-wood off the tee at the par-4 eighth missed well right and he was completely dead behind a tree. That led to a layup and another bogey.

Woods had a good birdie opportunity at the par-5 12th after hitting his approach into a greenside bunker, but he again failed to get up-and-down from the sand, leaving 24 feet for birdie. He two-putted for par.

Lastly, he blasted his bunker shot at the par-3 17th to 17 feet past the hole for another bogey.

He also provided some insight into his current psyche when asked if those three bunker shots were a result of lie, execution or both, with no mention of an up-and-down par save from the bunker at five.

“Well, the one I got up-and-down at five, that was a good one there,” Woods said. “Just left of the green. What other one?”

Woods was his own harshest critic for years, especially when he finished second or worse. These days he’s stressing patience, imploring fans and media to focus on the big picture.

“You guys are asking different questions than you did when I first came back, and that wasn’t that long ago,” Woods said earlier this week. “The narrative has completely flipped from how you guys ask me questions and I just wanted to remind you guys that it wasn’t that long ago that you were asking a different set of questions, and that you need to enjoy it.”

The big picture is this – Woods is progressing much quicker than most expected and injecting the Tour with a big shot of adrenalin entering the Masters, where he’s currently favored at 8-1 odds.

A string of three straight top-12s, including a runner-up at the Valspar, would be considered a strong run for every A-lister on Tour. Woods is on the cusp of that.

His mistakes and swing flaws are more glaring because every single swing is televised or streamed in some form. We see how other golfers place each week, but we don’t see every flubbed wedge or foul ball off the tee. We just see the result and judge them on that. We judge Woods on everything, sometimes losing sight of the final result.

That’s not to say Woods is completely out of it at Bay Hill. Facing a 12-foot birdie putt on 18 and waiting for playing partner Justin Rose to finish up, Woods was staring at a large, manually-operated leaderboard across the water, about 150 yards away.

It almost looked like he was sizing up the group of names ahead of him.

Woods made the birdie putt to get to 7 under going into his 1:30 p.m. Eastern final-round tee time with Bud Cauley.

He was five shots back to start the final round when he won this event in 2009, when winning was the norm and anything less was unacceptable. That’s not the case anymore, but Woods winning again is no longer out of the question like it seemed just a few months ago.

“I’m within reach if I shoot a really, really low round tomorrow,” Woods said.

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